Volume 13, Issue 41 ~ October 13 - October 19, 2005
Burton on The Bay
By Bill Burton

Bad attitudes
The pious ones of Plymouth, who reaching the Rock, first fell upon their own knees and then upon the aborigines.
—William Maxwell Evarts: Louisville Courier-Journal, July 4, 1913

And the pious ones of Plymouth and the countless others who followed them to these shores didn’t stop with the aborigines. Once they got the Native Americans out of the way, they fell upon their own environment.

Sadly with the same insatiable appetite and with the same ravaging results.

Once the Indians were driven precariously close to extinction, few white men had much regard for the environment, whether it be the land, the water or the fish and wildlife. It was and remains expand, develop, build, drain, dredge, pollute and deface. To hell with the consequences.

It wasn’t that way with the Indians. They revered all aspects of their environment, and they utilized and guarded it accordingly. Thanks to their inherent respect for their environment, surely they would have done things differently. They knew that prosperity meant more than the amenities of life.

As I look around today, methinks we need more of that attitude in our times. Everywhere the thinking is how much can I catch, shoot and get — period. Not how much can I catch, shoot and get while still ensuring the viability of the resource. What a difference. It’s a matter of attitude.

Forget for the moment the pollution, dredging, development and other man-made ills. Let’s look at the distressing way the users of our resources look upon the targets of their use.

So Long, White Marlin
The white marlin is not a fish of Chesapeake Bay or inland waters; it’s one of the most popular and spectacular fighting fish of the ocean.

Yet much as it’s endeared to those who troll for it in the distant canyons off Ocean City, this troubled species lacks essential support to curtail mortality via sportsfishing. The attitude seems to be We love you as long as we can catch you.

It’s no secret that white-marlin mortality has been too high for years. What’s surprising is the extent to which this is true. Would you believe National Marine Fisheries Service statistics reveal it is a tad more than eight times higher than it should be just to sustain a viable fishery?

Another surprise, no let’s say shock, came when the National Fisheries Service informed us that 35 percent of white marlin caught and released to fight another day don’t. They die from hook-associated injuries.

If non-offset circle hooks were mandatory with live baits during tournaments, Fisheries estimates a 65.7 percent reduction in mortality over the traditional J-hook. Thus, one of Fisheries’ three main proposals to save whites: mandatory use of circle hooks at tournament time, estimated to save 302 billfish in one major tournament alone.

The second proposal would be to allow marlin fishing on a catch-and-release basis only after Jan. 1, 2007. The third would implement a coastwide limit of 250 landings of whites annually. Once that’s reached, no more landings for the entire coast that year. There are other lesser proposals including no action at this time.

Now it’s not a case of the fish not biting; it’s the fishermen who aren’t biting at the proposal. At least at Ocean City, the home of the annual White Marlin Open, which lately has a payoff of more than $2 million and brings to O.C. millions more bucks in business, not to mention publicity.

At one time Ocean City might have bragged it was the White Marlin Capital of the World, but no more. Last year the season-long catch was, according to the Ocean City Marlin Club, 611 fish, of which 603 were released. More than 200 of those will have died by Fisheries Service statistics. In the early 1970s the catch was more than 2,000 annually.

But no one’s looking at those stats. The attitude is more akin to that of O.C. Mayor Jim Mathias, who said tampering with status quo “would severely hamper our charterboat and billfish charter industry in Ocean City. It would be devastating to us.”

Is the attitude let’s manage a resource on the basis of bucks? Seems so.

Circling the Wagons

DNR in testifying at the recent hearing at O.C., opted for status quo. The department suggested that circle hooks be promoted heavily to prompt their voluntarily use among ocean fishermen seeking billfish, which I find curious. I’m on the water much. My observations indicate most fishermen decline to use circle hooks even though it’s obvious they save many fish from serious injury and death.

On the Susquehanna Flats, circle hooks were promoted by Natural Resources as an answer to save rockfish taken in the special catch-and-release season thereabouts, but many fishermen didn’t respond. Finally, the department had to make them mandatory for bait fishermen. Methinks things wouldn’t be much different on the ocean.

Who’s the Hardhead?
Let’s get closer to home, the Chesapeake Bay. In recent years we’ve welcomed a resurgence in hardheads, which have come on bigger and more plentiful. Meanwhile, fishermen of the upper Bay have noticed a slide in their presence; they get far fewer.

Do the decreasing numbers of the upper Bay indicate smaller hatches? Not enough hardheads to push more hardheads farther up the Bay?

Now, let’s take a gander at sea trout. The past several years, runs have been exceptionally disappointing; few fishermen have caught any. Five years ago, there was great jigging in the fall for nice size trout. Fisheries scientists are as baffled as we are.

So recently DNR held two public meetings, one on a hardhead management plan, the other on a sea trout management plan. Would you care to guess what the attendance was?

One or two interested fishermen at each session!

Can You Imagine?
Does that give you a hint of the attitudes of those who should really care? Can you imagine all the Indians staying in their wigwams to sit things out when told the buffalo were in trouble? Or resisting efforts to save the prairie herds on learning that mortality was greater than reproduction?

Environmental attitudes have changed. It’s either no attitude: Why bother? Or it’s bad attitude: Get it while you can. It’s not easy to determine which is worse.

Enough said.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.